An elite athlete no doubt needs outstanding physical abilities. But who can deny that possessing resilience, a positive outlook, keen self-awareness and the ability to focus with greater attention, can all contribute significantly in reaching our goals?
Resilience is the ability to quiet signals coming from negative emotions and allow the brain to plan and act smoothly without being disturbed by these negative emotions. A positive outlook allows us to experience joy more often even in more difficult situations. Self-awareness is a capacity to stay connected to the body and avoid slipping into a state of sudden panic and fear. Attention is our ability to stay on task without being interrupted by trivial thoughts or outside phenomena. These can all be developed with mindfulness techniques to enhance athletic performance.
Resilience and Positive Outlook: Elite athletes have to go through a lot of training in order to achieve their goals. The accomplishment of repetitive tasks is a necessity in order to achieve excellence. There will be ups and downs along the road. Injuries will occur, a person will feel a little bored some days, and arguments with a coach or a friend are simply part of life. The ability to shrug off more difficult moments in a matter of minutes or even seconds will be a great asset.
Greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex is associated with positive emotions and a greater activity of the right prefrontal cortex with negative emotions. People suffering from depression experience “happy” feelings but do not experience them for a long time compared to healthy people. An inability to sustain a pleasant emotion or experience in more depressed people seems to matter more than the capacity to live this pleasant emotion which is seen in both depressed and non-depressed subjects. This is true for subjects experiencing depression but also true for healthy people. How can athletes remain positive about their lives amid the normal turmoil of human existence? How can they remain joyful about what they are doing even though there will be tough moments to go through?
The amount of signals coming from the amygdala (the fear center) to the prefrontal cortex tells how fast a person can recover from an unpleasant experience. The prefrontal cortex is the control center of the brain. Its ability to quiet signals coming from negative emotions allows the brain to plan and act smoothly without being disturbed by negative emotions. We can improve our resilience and develop a positive outlook through knowledge and mindfulness.
Self-Awareness and Focus: Athletes can face enormous pressure at times. To be aware of the physical sensations that come with pressure is a great asset. If a few minutes before the beginning of a competition you feel extremely tense, to have the ability to experience this sensation and to disconnect it from your thoughts gives you an advantage. The part of the brain that receives signals from the very important visceral organs is the insula. The insula looks at body sensations from a physical point of view more neutrally than thoughts do. High levels of activity in the insula support a high level of self-awareness. Regular meditators have more neurological thickness in their insula than non meditators. An athlete who is knowledgeable about his brain will simply recognise these sensations as physical sensations, hence no need to feel tension or panic about what is material not psychological.
There is so much information entering the brain at every moment that it is almost a miracle that we have an ability to concentrate on one object. There are two mechanisms that regulate attention. As you are reading these words, the first mechanism enhances the strength of the visual signal and the second mechanism inhibits the sound signals that might be around you. The activity of the prefrontal cortex is paramount in the regulation of selective attention. Athletes need to access their prefrontal cortex as often as possible especially when focus is needed.
MIND SESSION — How can we improve our resilience, positive outlook, self-awareness and attention through meditation?
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Featured image by Phil Hillyard
About the Author
Pierre Gagnon practised concentration and insight meditation intensively from 2010 to 2012, then went on to study meditation at Wat Suan Mokkh with the venerable Ajahn Po from 2013 to 2015. As well as his own practice, he has coordinated meditation retreats in the south of Thailand which were attended by more than 1,000 people.
Having a great passion in the field of neuroscience, he likes to integrate these concepts into meditation practice. He believes that much of our life is lived resisting and defending against internal and external experiences that people perceive as threats. Through the development of concentration and meditation, we can insightfully see that all experiences are harmless and there is no need to defend of contract around them. Pierre has experience coordinating concentration and insight meditation retreats, teaching the relationship that exists between Buddhism and neuroscience.